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Palm oil in cosmetics: can it be avoided?

Posted Jul 18 2013 2:00am

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Maxi must know… I have been avoiding palm oil in my food (due to the deforestation and loss of habit of orangutans from its production) but DID NOT realise it was in my beauty products as well! A friend told me isopropyl palmitate is derived from palm oil but I’m having a hard time finding products without it. Unless I spend more at Lush or Neal’s Yard which I can’t really afford! Does anyone know if isopropyl palmitate is indeed derived from palm oil and if so, have any suggestions of brands that don’t use it?

The Beauty Brains respond:

We applaud what you’re doing to help the environment. Unfortunately, purging your cosmetic collection of palm oil-based ingredients is easier said than done.

First of all, you’re correct that the “palmitate” portion of isopropyl palmitate (IPM) comes from palm oil. If you read ingredient lists carefully it’s fairly easy to find skin lotions that don’t contain IPM. For example, you could try this Gold Bond product . But not all palm-derived ingredients have “palm” in their name. Consider these examples:

  • Alternate name: some products call palm oil by its official name Elaeis guineensis, so you have to watch for that as well.
  • Soaps are exempt from listing ingredients:  Soap bars are made of fatty acid salts and since they are not legally considered to be cosmetics they don’t have to list their ingredients. And guess which oil is commonly used to make the fatty acids used in soaps? That’s right – palm! Sodium palmitate is often used in soaps.  (This exclusion only applies to true bar soaps not synthetic detergent bars or liquid soaps. Those products DO have to list all their ingredients.)
  • Other derivatives have different names: There are a host of other ingredients that are derived from palm oil and since they are chemically modified the word “palm” doesn’t appear in their names. Two examples are Isohexadecane and Isoopropyl mystristate.

Okay, so if you can’t just read the label to identify ingredients that are based on palm oil, can’t you just call up the companies that make your favorite products and ask them? It’s not really that easy either.  If you’re very very lucky and the company has already compiled ingredient sourcing information as part of their sustainability program they might have it on hand. More likely they would have to go back and check with all their suppliers of those ingredients. And since each ingredient is usually sold by multiple companies this can be a paralyzingly complex task. In most cases we doubt you’d be able to get a definitive answer.

The good news is that the majority of the deforestation that occurs is to supply palm oil for the food industry.  Even though palm oil derivatives are used in a large number of cosmetics, the actual amount that’s used pales in comparison to the tonnage used in foods. So you can still help to save the rain forests if you just cut out eating palm oil based foods. If a little sneaks into your cosmetics here and there it’s really just a drop in the bucket.

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